St Kitts’ Registry of Slaves gains UNESCO recognition


The registers of the slaves of St. Kitts have been awarded ‘Memory of the World’ status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in recognition of their outstanding universal value.  With their inscription on the ‘Memory of the World’ register, the registers, held by the National Archives of St Kitts, join the ranks of some of the world’s most significant documentary heritage.

The UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ international register is a catalogue of documentary heritage of global significance and outstanding universal value.  It is the documentation equivalent to the world heritage site list. The program promotes the preservation of these valuable, often hidden assets, and encourages institutions to provide access to them either in the original format or as microfilms of digitized items. The Program was launched in 1992 and features historical items and documents from over 60 countries.

The inscription covers registers of slaves of the Caribbean which survive in St. Kitts, Bahamas, Belize, Dominica, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Kingdom. The importance of this inscription lies in the fact that the register was the first time that any effort was made to record the enslaved population of the region.  It was based on the idea of lawyer James Stephen who had spent several years in St. Kitts and who worked fervently to end enslavement on his return to England.  Aware that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was going to be difficult to enforce, Stephen suggested that the keeping of a register would provide the colonial authorities with a means to control smuggling. Every time a census of the enslaved was taken, two copies of the register were made.  One remained in the colony that compiled it and the other was sent to the Colonial Office in London.  As can be seen by the relatively small number of Caribbean countries that joined the nomination, not all of the registers survived in the region.  Many fell victim to the hot, humid climate, the hurricanes, fires and other man-made disasters.  Two of the registers in St. Kitts are in a very fragile state while the very first register which dates from 1817 needs to be rebound.  

Historian Victoria O’Flaherty said the designation process, a long-time dream of hers, began in 2007.  “I’ve been at the archives for 13 years and I always thought it would be a good idea to apply to UNESCO for ‘Memory of the World’ status. I finally decided to go ahead with it two years ago and I heard Dominica was also pursuing that goal,” said O’Flaherty. “We then made it a regional project, and the memory inscription includes not just registers from St. Kitts, but also those from Dominica, Belize, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.” She highlighted the benefits of the designation, which she said included greater historical awareness by nationals and easier access to funding for preservation of historical material. “So many persons are unaware of the breadth of information that is available in the archives…I hope this achievement compels them to come and learn about their heritage. I also hope it can facilitate the conservation that is so urgently needed, and encourage the preservation of the valuable archival collection that is already housed at the archives and the housing of collections that remain in so many unsafe locations around the island.”

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